Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920

Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920

Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920

Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920

Excerpt

Among all the marvelous advances of Christianity either
within this organization [the YMCA] or without it, in this
land and century or any other lands and ages, the future
historian of the church of Christ will place this movement of
carrying the gospel to the body as one of the most epoch
making.

— G. STANLEY HALL (1902)

Between 1880 and 1920, American Protestants in many denominations witnessed the flourishing in their pulpits and seminaries of a strain of religiosity known, both admiringly and pejoratively, as “muscular Christianity.” Converts to this creed included Josiah Strong, a Social Gospel minister who thought bodily strength a prerequisite for doing good; G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer psychologist who wished to reinvigorate “old-stock” Americans; and President Theodore Roosevelt, an advocate of strenuous religion for “the Strenuous Life.” These and other stalwart supporters of Christian manliness hoped to energize the churches and to counteract the supposedly enervating effects of urban living. To realize their aims, they promulgated competitive sports, physical education, and other staples of modernday life.

Muscular Christians were active not only in America but also in England, where the term “muscular Christianity” arose in the 1850s to describe the novels of Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley. Both of these men believed that the Anglican Church of their day was becoming overly tolerant of physical weakness and effeminacy. To reverse this perceived trend, Hughes and Kingsley worked to infuse Anglicanism with enough health and manliness to make it a suitable agent for British imperialism. Their ideas were also exported to America, where they were received with enthusiasm by Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In a seminal 1858 Atlantic Monthly . . .

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